5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Youth vs. Experience

It’s no secret that the top two choices to win on Sunday have to be Alex Palou from Ganassi and Pato O’Ward from McLaren. They’re the last two runner-up finishers here, Palou in 2021 and O’Ward last year. They just went 1-2 in the GMR Grand Prix and O’Ward has finished runner-up three times this season alone.

They enter Sunday’s race 1-2 in points as well.

O’Ward has 12 top four finishes in 16 oval starts and a top 10 in all three Indy 500 tries. He went from sixth to fourth to second to…first?

Seems legit.

Palou hasn’t finished worse than eighth since in his last six starts.

The thing is, Indy is usually dominated by veterans. Since 2009 (14 races), all but one of them were won by a driver in his 30’s.

What about Takuma Sato then who’s won two Indy 500’s already and did so with different teams each coming in three-year increments? He starts eighth. Sato went first, seventh, first, third and first respectively in the practice sessions this month.

10 drivers have won this race 3 or more times with only 4 of the 10 having won this prestigious event a record setting four times. Sato can become the 11th in May.

What’s even more rare about this is, if he win, this would mark the third team he’s won Indy with. Only three drivers (Al Unser, Bobby Unser and AJ Foyt) have accomplished that feat. 2 of the 3 are in the 4-win club.

The oldest driver to ever win this race is Al Unser at 47. Sato is 46.

Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan are both older than 47 but can easily do it. Kanaan starts ninth in his final Indy 500.

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Marcus Ericsson crosses the Yard of Bricks 1st for the win in the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Is This A Battle Of Ganassi vs. McLaren

Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport have combined to have won every NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship since 2003. The trio have also won 14 of the last 18 Indy 500’s and 18 of the last 23 (since 2000). RLL is the outlier who took two of the top three spots in 2020 and have won 2 of the 5 that the “Big 3” didn’t since 2000. Plus, the last non Penske Chevrolet driver to win at Indy was Al Unser Jr. with Galles in 1992. Meyer Shank Racing won in 2021 with Helio Castroneves and now that they have Simon Pagenaud in their organization for a second straight year, they boast two of the last four Indy 500 winners.

So, who comes out on top on Sunday?

The best Penske qualifier is 12th. The best Andretti is 15th. Eight of the top 10 drivers in the starting lineup all belong to Ganassi and McLaren. Is this their race to lose?

The last non Penske Chevrolet team to win here was Galles Racing in 1992. The drivers made mention this week that McLaren seems to struggle a bit more when the temperatures rise. This weekend isn’t going to be hot by any stretch of the imagination but it will be warm.

How much does that affect their balance?

Ganassi seems to be good in any conditions and most drivers noted that they have the team to beat. However, this is a long race and a lot can happen over the course of 500 miles.

Scott Dixon led 111 laps in 2020 but didn’t win. He was caught out by an ill timed caution in 2021. In 2022, he sped on his final pit stop after leading 95 laps. His teammate, Alex Palou, was caught out by a caution like Dixon was a year prior.

In 2021, Helio Castroneves from Meyer Shank Racing benefited. Last year, it was Marcus Ericsson in a Ganassi car. Who’s the one to benefit on Sunday and can it be someone outside of these camps?

Chip Ganassi Racing has won five Indianapolis 500’s. That ranks in a tie for third most all-time with Lou Moore (1938, 1941, 1947, 1948, 1949). Only Team Penske (18 wins) and Andretti Autosport (6 wins) have more. Three of those five triumphs in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for Ganassi came in a five-year span between 2008 and 2012.

They qualified 1-6-8-10 this year, 1-3-4-6-12 a year ago and 1-3-7-9 in 2021. They also combined to lead 163 of 200 laps (82%) last year.

They’ve also led 324 of 600 (54%) of the overall laps led in the Aeroscreen era too.

Monday was the first time all month that a Chip Ganassi Racing car wasn’t leading the end of day speed charts. Still, they had 3 of the top four and look to be equally as strong now that we enter race week. They went 1-3-4 on Carb Day on practice too.

Last week, Ganassi went 1-2-4-7 on opening day. On Thursday, they went 1-2-7-9. On Fast Friday, they went 1-4-10-14 but 1-2 on the four-lap average chart.

“Obviously last year the Ganassi’s were the different benchmark. They’re the ones that we’re chasing,” said last year’s runner-up finisher, Pato O’Ward.

Defending race winner, Marcus Ericsson, says that he feels his chances this year are as high as they were a year ago. He feels good about starting 10th on Sunday.

“I think last year we were super good all practice, the whole week as well,” said Ericsson. “I think we are as good this year for sure.

“I think the team has done a really good job of trying to improve the package that we already had last year very strong. I definitely feel we’re in a very, very good spot.

“We feel strong. We feel better than last year, and last year we were pretty good.

“We feel better. We worked hard in the winter already to improve on a strong package. Testing is testing, it’s hard to make conclusions. But of course we feel we’re going to be fighting up front. From what we’ve seen so far, we should be up there.

“We don’t want to underestimate our competition because there’s a lot of good teams that work really hard to improve. We can’t underestimate that challenge going into this weekend and the next one.

“It’ll be tough. Yeah, it’s a it’s a very tough race to win and to go back to back he’s obviously been very few times in the history that people have been able to do that. I do feel we have a good chance though. Because we have a really good car again this year. The team is working well. Very well together have strong teammates. We put ourselves in a good position with detail on the grid. So I feel like we have a really good shot at it and I’m feeling confident we can do it.”

McLaren does have the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and now 5th place finishers from last year’s race.

“I think it’s still a pretty big day for us,” Rosenqvist said. “I mean, we’ve been good here the last couple years. Today to have all the cars in the top eight, in this competition, it’s really hard. We saw with Tony today, even if he’s doing a perfect job, still things that can outside factors that can play in, it can become really difficult in this field.

“Super proud of the whole team for executing. That last run we did was just phenomenal. Almost in a 234 average. That was pretty mind-blowing how we found so much speed. We weren’t super happy on our first run, so we had two or three reasons to think we were going to go quicker. We kind of put them all together, wow, what a run.

“Team Chevy as well, great job. Yeah, just a fun time to be in Arrow McLaren right now. Everything kind of resets for tomorrow, but we definitely feeling good right now.”

Santino Ferrucci practices his No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

AJ Foyt Racing

AJ Foyt Racing hasn’t won an NTT INDYCAR SERIES race since 2013 (169 races). They’ve not won an Indy 500 since 1999. However, this team looks primed to contend for a victory on Sunday afternoon.

Both cars qualified ahead of all three Team Penske’s with Santino Ferrucci coming from the Inside of Row 2 (4th) and his rookie teammate, Benjamin Pedersen starting on the Middle of Row 4 (11th).

Ferrucci said on Thursday that he feels like AJ Foyt Racing is his home now. It feels like family. It feels right. He’s showing just how good of a driver he is and is hopeful that he can win race No. 6 for Super Tex (AJ Foyt), 4 as a driver and one as an owner.

“I definitely want to get that that sixth win for him and my first in this in this car be so freakin special,” Ferrucci told me.

Ferrucci has never been known as a great qualifier here. He started 23rd as a rookie in 2019. A year later, he qualified 19th. The last two years prior to this one, he’s started 23rd again and 15th respectively.

However, on race day, he didn’t stay there long.

He went from 23rd to 7th in 2019, 19th to 4th in 2020, 23rd to 6th in 2021 and 15th to 10th a year ago in a car that he ran as high as fourth in on Lap 158.

Now, he’s starting in fourth and already up front.

“I’ve always hated qualifying,” Ferrucci admitted. “I was shaking after my first qualifying run. I was happy it was done. So I just I don’t know. It doesn’t matter me I’ve just I’ve never started well here. I’ve never qualified well here I’ve got a 23rd to 19th and a 15th in qualifying and all the top 10 finishes so yes, I would much rather start on the outside row five or six then have to manage being upfront. When we got up from the Dryer car, started 15th last year and we stayed up front all day till the very end, so it’s one of those things where we can definitely do it. My focus is always race car.

“I’m not afraid to pass people I’m not afraid to you know, be on the limits in the pits.”

What happens now that we know that he only has three cars in front of him on Sunday.

“I’m still never a fan of qualifying,” he admitted even after the fact that he made last week’s Shootout. “I’m a racer through and through. Getting these four laps out of the way was amazing for us and the team to be as fast as we are. It’s incredible, a major feat.

“Personally as a driver, yeah, it’s definitely something I’m happy to check off the list, happy I don’t have to pass as many cars come Sunday. But, yeah, I’m more looking forward to the race than anything else.”

What’s scary to the field is, Ferrucci admits that his actual “race” car is better than this qualifying setup.

 “I actually feel a lot more comfortable in the race car than I have been in the qualifying car. Our car definitely has some more in it.

Ferrucci also notes this year he can get back to taking more risks as a full-time driver. Last year with DRR, it was just a one-race deal. He babied the car because of that. This year, this is his ride and his ride only. He’s going to go back to the old Ferrucci approach of being overly aggressive.

“You know, last year the team did really save me a bit,” he said. “I didn’t have the greatest restarts which is kind of unusual. I was definitely taking more of a step back being on a you know, just a one ride time to deal because I really needed to finish. So, this year you know I can go a little bit more out ahead of my skis per se and really be aggressive but also just being comfortable. So starting in the back for me people make mistakes trying to push the frontier early and I just you know I’m more of the last 75 laps kind of guy.”

That’s music to the ears of his boss, AJ Foyt.

Helio Castroneves’ Drive For 5

In 106 past years of the Indianapolis 500, no one has ever won this race more than 4 times. Prior to 2021, only 3 drivers had crossed the famed yard of bricks first on 4 occasions. Then Helio Castroneves stamped his name into the record book by becoming the fourth one to do so. Can he now be the first to win No. 5?

He’s had a quiet month last year. Castroneves was 22nd on the opening day speed chart. He was 22nd again on Day 3 (Wednesday was washed out). On Monday of race week, he was 13th. He qualified 27th and finished seventh.

After a tough start to the year that has seen him collected in two first lap crashes and has him mired deep in the points in 20th (-74), how much longer does he want to keep doing this?

“As long as I have the passion,” Castroneves admitted on Thursday afternoon “Nothing you can change. Nothing can beat it when you have passion and it’s run by good people behind you that you can have the same goal. And work ethic you know, continue to work and make sure that you find those details because technology, competition. I will say evolution, you know, it could change that you can’t run the same computer that you have, like 10 years ago. Right? So you’re gonna continue improving and somehow because of the cars keep changing. You find something new. So as long as I keep having fun.”

Right now, he’s having fun.

AJ Foyt got his fourth win in his 20th start. He had 35 total Indy 500 starts (most ever) but could win in a rear engine, front engine, bricks or pavement. Hell, the guy could win on any surface as he holds the record for most championships (7) and most wins (67). He finished runner-up in the race in 1976 and again in 1979. No one has completed as many miles (12,272.50) as Foyt either. 

Al Unser Sr. also has four wins. He did so in his 22nd start as he’s made 27 overall Indy starts. He also had three runner-ups (1967, 1972 and 1983). He finished third four times (1977, 1984, 1988 and 1992) too. On top of that, Unser has led the most laps ever (644) and second most miles (10,890). Unser, had 39 career open wheel wins too (5th most) to go along with 31 runner-ups (6th), 98 podiums (fifth) and 140 top fives (sixth).

Rick Mears has four wins and he got his fourth in his only his 14th start. In fact, in just 15 Indy 500 starts, Mears had nine top fives including a runner-up (1982) and two third place runs (1983 and 1986). Mears had six Indy 500 poles (most ever) but ranks 13th in career Indy Car wins, 13th in runner-ups (22), 15th in podiums (74) and 12th in top fives (111).

Castroneves has four wins in 22 starts. The Brazilian has the third most miles completed too. He’s also had three runners-up and all three rank among the closest finishes in the 106-year history too. Gil de Ferran stopped his back-to-back reign in 2001 and 2002 with a win by just .2990-seconds over him in ’03. In 2014, Ryan Hunter-Reay stopped him by only .0600-seconds which still ranks as the second closest Indy 500 finish ever. Takuma Sato bested him by .2011-seconds in 2017 for the sixth closest result.

Combine those results, Castroneves is .5601-seconds from being a seven-time winner. So, can he get to five at least?

Both Bobby Unser and Al Unser won in 1981 and 1987 respectively as 47-year-olds. Emerson Fittipaldi won in 1993 at the age of 46. Gordon Johncock won in 1982 at the rightful age of 45.

Foyt made 15 attempts after notching his fourth Indy 500 victory in 1977 to score his fifth win. He’d never do so with only scoring two top fives after including a runner-up finish in 1979.

Unser was the next to join the four win club in 1987. He’d try five more times to earn a fifth ‘500 triumph with finishes of 3rd, 24th, 13th, 3rd and 12th respectively.

Mears joined in 1991. A 26th place finish in 1992’s race was his final shot.

“Well, we basically felt we’re feeling very strong and it’s some of the rules changed a little bit bigger than me,” said Castroneves. “This is the actual Indy 500 car. And, and we were able to we were able to have some too many laps on it, but feels like we’re in the right direction. And I’m excited man, it’s great to be back again. In the special with this weather, nice weather. Got to take advantage of these today, obviously. But yeah, we want to take as much as we want to run as much as possible so that we can learn just new aerodynamics bits.

“Every time you’re behind the steering wheel here you always learn something. And it’s funny because you like feel things you like, I didn’t feel this last year. So I’m telling my engineers always the same. It’s like, I know, but I didn’t feel this before. So, it’s funny, because you kind of like understand what the bar you like and that you’ve felt before and what you need to achieve. And that’s what we hear.”

Will Power and Alexander Rossi cross the yard of bricks during Indy 500 practice. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

The Last Lap

It seems unanimous that you don’t want to be leading coming to the white flag here on Sunday. The second place car has such an advantage that all the drivers said that it could be pretty easy to make a pass up front. None of them wanted to be the one leading Lap 199 because they feel like without a caution, they won’t be leading Lap 200.

“Come to the white flag, yeah, you want to be second,” Conor Day said. “But it depends on like the raw speed like I would say some car if you can follow really close in for maybe you can make that move before the start finish. It depends on how well you tow up some cars tow up better than others like I’d see some cars that like really have to pop late. But if you can stay really locked in behind the car in front of you, you could probably make a move before the start finish.

“So yeah, it just depends on everything. But I’d rather be second headed into. Well, no, I’d rather be first heading into three on the last lap. But definitely make the move before you get there.”

However, there is the threat of a caution. Last year’s race ended under caution when Sage Karam crashed off the exit of Turn 2. That froze the field and allowed Marcus Ericsson to win.

So how do you balance that?

“I mean, hypothetically, I’d like to lead all the time,” Daly said. “No, I think the goal is just lead whenever you can. I think especially on that last stint because anything can happen as you said and I mean, people are literally going to have to be on the verge of crashing to make a pass because you just got to trust that if you can get a little bit of air to that left front corner of the wing, you’re gonna get a little bit of grip and enough to get launched yourself around the car in front of you.”

30 times we’ve seen a late pass for the lead inside of 10 to go. Six times the lead was lost on Lap 199 (1912, 1989, 1999, 2012, 2019, 2021) and twice the lead was lost on the front straightaway coming to the checkered flag (2006, 2011).

I have a feeling that without a caution, we’re going to see just that with what could possibly be one of the top closest finishes ever.

.043-seconds in 1992 is the closest. .0600-seconds in 2014 is next best. 2006 was .0635-seconds. 2015 was .1046-seconds while 1982 (.16-seconds) rounds out the top five.

I think we break into the top five on Sunday.

“I think it’s harder to lead this year with the aero specs we have,” said last year’s Indy 500 champion, Marcus Ericsson. “I think if you lead in a scenario like last year it’s going to be harder to keep that lead is my feeling.”Will Power agreed. “Oh, it’s going to be easy to pass, not in the pack but at the front, because you’ve added downforce,” he says. “You actually haven’t added much drag. The cars are about the same speed because they’re very efficient, aero bits or strakes and some floor stuff, so it’s not big draggy wicker on the wing or anything. It’s the closest I’ve ever been able to run to a car at this place without an issue.”

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